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Choosing your words carefully

As you walk into class, the mind-bending exercise begins: Think backward. Write differently. Be more polite than you ever dreamed possible.

If you've studied Japanese, you know what I mean.

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Our story on the intricacies of the Arabic language (see page 14) brought to mind all the above, and more. I can't really compare Japanese, which I know, to Arabic, which I don't, except to state the obvious: they're both hard. When I was in graduate school, in fact, these languages were both on the Defense Department's list as deserving special attention, something that conveniently provided me with a scholarship to continue my study.

We'd do well as a nation to spend more money helping students to stay the course with these difficult languages. Then the FBI wouldn't have to make public pleas, as it did after Sept. 11, for more translators to step forward.

It's not a matter of a year or two of hard work, after all. For one thing, none of your own cultural cues or habits are there. In Japanese, for example, you don't need a subject; it's usually intuited. Sentence structure is the reverse of English. Then there's patience: You'll count to 1,850 before knowing all the characters you should to read a newspaper.

But language is fundamental to understanding a culture. Japanese words can change depending on your status relative to your companion. Women use softer language, typically, than men. A superior is a person "above the eyes." You refer to having an older or younger brother, not just a brother.

All of which starts to reveal what lies beneath surface impressions - and in a world where borders have drawn closer, that can't but be a good thing.


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